Saturday, November 19, 2005

Is there hope for North Korea? (Part 2)

How to reach the people of North Korea is a tough question.

But one place to start is by speaking the truth in our own capitals. That's what Mr. Bush did in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he named North Korea as one of the three charter members of the "axis of evil"--along with Iran and Saddam's Iraq. But later, Mr. Bush said only that "we're working closely with the governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

Trouble is, the source of the threat from Pyongyang is less North Korea's nuclear interests than its government.

Democratic South Korea has nuclear plants capable of producing bomb fuel, but we aren't much worried Seoul is about to start dispensing bombs to blow us up.

The great danger of North Korea stems from a totalitarian regime that must conjure enemies to keep its own grip at home.

Short of war to remove the Kim regime, probably the best way into North Korean society is to welcome and encourage people coming out. That offers a chance for North Korean defectors to speak up, broadcast honest news back into the country, organize dissident groups and seek ways best known to former insiders to communicate with those still trapped under Kim's rule.

Except the number of North Koreans welcomed by the rest of the world has been tragically small--amounting to about 6,300 all told, most of them arriving in South Korea over the past three years. That's about zip compared to the number who would flee given even a whisper of a decent chance. At risk of their lives, an estimated 300,000 have in any case fled across the border into China.

You might think that once they reached Chinese turf, an outfit such as the United Nations, keeper of the 1951 convention on refugees, would offer help. Hardly. Since famine in North Korea and growing mobility inside China brought the first serious refugee influx in the early 1990s, the U.N. has engaged in what it calls "quiet diplomacy," meant to persuade China's regime to honor its international obligations and at least allow safe passage to these asylum-seekers, who have a fear of persecution deeply grounded in the likelihood that they may be executed, or sent to murderous labor camps, if returned.

But so quiet is this diplomacy, so as not to offend China--which sits on the governing body of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and holds a veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council--that nothing much has emerged from all the hush. There are no refugee centers for North Koreans in China; instead, there is a bilateral treaty with North Korea under which asylum-seekers are labeled illegal economic migrants. If caught, they are sent back.

The result, as South Korea-based private American relief worker Tim Peters reports in a recent bulletin, is that even with help for North Korean refugees signed into law in the U.S. last year, the outlook for them "is indeed grim for 2005." China has beefed up efforts to keep them out or catch them, posting more soldiers along the border, and adding roadblocks to detect private aid workers trying at risk of prison themselves to reach the border areas.

From inside North Korea, reports Mr. Peters, he has been receiving accounts that "authorities have stepped up the monitoring and interrogation of families in which family members are unaccounted for." That is awful news, because in North Korea, the regime imposes collective punishment on entire families.

How the end might come for the despotic regime of North Korea, we do not yet know. It would be foolish to expect it will in any sense be easy. But it would be cruelty and madness, not to mention plain dumb foreign policy, to assume that 23 million human beings would not, like the Iraqis, welcome the chance to start the long labor of assembling a government of, by and for the people. If they do, the world will be safer for it.

[Excerpted from an article by Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

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